Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Galileo Moment

"The news was sensational.  It made a reputation larger even than the triumph among the trading community.  And yet it was not altogether welcome, because what Galileo saw in the sky, and revealed to everyone who was willing to look, was that the Ptolemaic heaven simply would not work.  Copernicus's powerful guess had been right, and now stood open and revealed.  And like many more recent scientific results, that did not at all please the prejudice of the establishment of his day.

Galileo thought that all he had to do was to show that Copernicus was right, and everybody would listen.  That was his first mistake:  the mistake of being naive about people's motives which scientists make all the time.  "
Excerpt from 'The Ascent of Man' by Jacob Bronowski

Galileo didn't invent the telescope.  He did however improve on it.  A lot.  This amazing new device that enabled you to see ships from miles away as if it were right in front of you was a technological marvel and everyone wanted to look through it.  The problem was that Galileo didn't stop with looking at ships.  He kept improving the telescope and then he turned it to the stars.  That did not go over very well with some people, especially the Catholic Church.  It's not that they didn't accept science.  No, it's just that there was a certain kind of science they accepted and anything that dared to contradict it was blasphemy.  The fact that the earth was the unmoving center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth - these were articles of faith.  These ideas were wrong though understandable.  With the limited tools of the time, those seemed reasonable enough.  But science brought better tools and with better tools came better understanding and with better understanding came the upsetting of established doctrine.  It should have been undeniable, for the truth was there for anyone brave enough to look through the telescope, but no.  Protecting the established doctrine was far more important to the Pope than observing the truth.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I'm sure Galileo would be saddened but not terribly surprised by the current efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution.  People have very strong ideas about how things are supposed to be but then sometimes science comes along and says "Actually... no... you're wrong".  This leads to a very curious paradox where people want to be right but they prefer to hold on to their own idea of "right" (no matter how demonstrably wrong it may be) rather than accepting the truth and actually being right.  Very curious indeed.

This isn't true for everyone though.  I think most of us come to crossroads like these.  On the one side is everything you've been taught to believe is true, what everyone you've ever known has always insisted was true.  Maybe it's even that which you most deeply wished were true.  But on the other side is something that proves what you used to believe wrong.  Maybe it's something small yet nagging, like your conscience, your empathy, your sense of reason and logic or an experience you've had that made you see things differently.  Or maybe it's hard evidence, some science or historical fact you've never been exposed to before and no even though you wanted to dismiss it, you can't because it's very clearly true.  So you have the world you know (and are used to) on the one hand and a strange new, scary world on the other  What do you do?

Well, some people pretend there is no crossroad.  People like the church in Galileo's day or Answers in Genesis in ours just look away and say, "There is no other road but the one we have always followed.  The only thing that can be true is the thing we've always said was true.  We cannot have been wrong, not now, not ever.  "  And so they keep on their way, completely unwilling to even look through the telescope, for to do so would cost them too much.  It is a price they simply cannot pay.

But there are others.  Heretics, Apostates, Freethinkers - these are some of the nicer names we get called - who simply cannot do that.  We have to look, we have to know.  It's not always easy.  Knowing changes you.  No one enjoys finding out they were wrong, no one likes having their entire world turned upside down.  But that is the price of looking for the truth and we pay it.  Sometimes gladly, sometimes with difficulty, but we do it none the less.  The thing with truth is that no matter how disagreeable you find it, it's still the truth.

For some there is a choice between the facts and what they would like the facts to be.  For others there is no choice at all.  Some people can tell themselves they are right despite seeing more than enough to convince them they are wrong.  That's no way to live.

At least not for me.

But hey, on the bright side, no one is going to drag me in front of the Inquisition and threaten to torture me for disagreeing!  Thank goodness some things at least did change since the days of Galileo!

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